The bright glow of dandelions emerging in springtime is an important seasonal milestone for many creatures. For bees, the golden flowers are an important source of early season nourishment in the form of pollen and nectar. For lawn keepers, the appearance of those persistent weeds marks the beginning of another frustrating summer.
While dandelions can be stubborn adversaries, they can be valuable friends as well, and not just to bees. Humans use every part of the plant, making wine from the petals, tea from the root, and salad and juice from the leaves. Each section of the plant delivers different nutrients and compounds with antioxidant, antibiotic and even anti-carcinogenic properties. But despite their nutritional attributes and sweet smiles, dandelions are so bitter that few people will touch them.
Many of the most nutritious plant foods we eat are also the most bitter. Bitterness, like sweetness, is a taste that multiple substances can trigger, in stark contrast to the other four basic tastes: sweet, salty, umami and sour, each of which is triggered by a specific agent (glucose, sodium chloride, glutamate, and citric or acetic acid, respectively).
Bitter is the only basic taste that helps us avoid eating things. The consensus explanation is that the ability to detect bitterness evolved as a way of avoiding poisonous plants. Most toxic plant compounds are bitter-flavored, and the reason so many different substances taste bitter is that there are many different toxins to avoid.
These compounds are not toxic by accident, but as part of the plant’s survival strategy. But many of these toxins are also beneficial to humans. As the saying goes, the dose makes the poison, and the same goes for a substance’s medicinal qualities.
The medicinal value of many bitter compounds is hardly news. Many of the bitters commonly used in mixed drinks were once used as medicine. Similarly, cultures worldwide traditionally forage for greens, dandelions included, in springtime, bitter as they may be. Spring greens have long been thought to act as a tonic, helping the body cleanse and recharge its micronutrient levels after long, plant-deficient winter diets.
Before agriculture, when virtually all the plants our ancestors ate were wild, humans had to deal with dietary bitterness on a daily basis. And perhaps it did their bodies good.
But as humans began cultivating wild plants and selecting for desired traits, bitterness was given the boot, writes Jo Robinson in Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health. “Early farmers favored plants that were relatively low in fiber and high in sugar, starch and oil.”
Along with bitter flavor, deep pigmentation is also a telltale sign of nutrient density. “The most nutritious greens in the supermarket are not green at all but red, purple, or reddish brown. These particular hues come from phytonutrients called anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants that show great promise in fighting cancer, lowering blood pressure, slowing age-related memory loss, and even reducing the negative effects of eating high-sugar and high-fat foods, Robinson writes.”
Not all people perceive bitterness the same way. In 2006 a gene was discovered that codes for a taste bud that makes carriers more sensitive to certain bitter compounds. One such trigger is glucosinolate, found in members of the cabbage family including Brussels sprouts and broccoli, but not in the chicory family of bitter greens, which includes escarole, endive, radicchio and dandelions.
According to one study, people who are sensitive to bitterness have a higher body mass index, suggesting that their aversion to bitterness tilts their diet toward sweet foods, rather than veggies. Another study found that people who taste less bitterness intensely are more likely to be beer drinkers.
I’m no mixologist, but the long history of bitters in mixed drinks makes me wonder what would happen if one were to pour a shot of dandelion leaf juice into a Bloody Mary, which normally contains Angostura bitters, along with other bitter donors like celery and olives. Indeed, part of the Bloody Mary’s magic lies in how the drink combines bitterness with every other basic taste: sweet, sour, umami and salty.
The blog Disco Ginferno offers a Dandelion Black Jack recipe in which roasted dandelion root is used as a substitute for coffee, with a dandelion flower garnish. Meanwhile, a beautiful gin and tonic-like cocktail, Impending Bloom, was created by Chicago bartender Sean Patrick Riley. It makes use of Dr. Adam Elmegirab’s Dandelion & Burdock Bitters, which claims that dandelion and burdock bitters were created in the 1300s by St. Thomas Aquinas.
Dandelion wine has a poetic ring to it, and I love Ray Bradbury’s book by the same name (which has absolutely nothing to do with dandelion wine). But in my experience, dandelion wine generally tastes like any other homemade wine. Not very good, in other words. And it’s painstaking to make, as you need a ton of dandelion flower petals.
These petals do make the liquid look pretty, but I’m happy looking at a field of dandelion flowers, preferably buzzing with bees. And I’m happy chopping dandelion greens into my salad or my stir-fry. When I drink my dandelion, it’s usually juiced, along with carrot, ginger and apple. Balanced with the sweetness of apple and carrot and the spicy bite of ginger, the bitterness belongs.